The rise in home-based enterprises and larger businesses offering telecommuting means that employees don't necessarily have to move to where the jobs are. Ansted, WV (population around 1500) is exploring how they might become a haven for web-based businesses, according to an article in the Beckley Register-Herald. “'It occurred to me that northern Fayette County is geographically and economically separate from the rest of the county. It became pretty apparent to me that we were going to have to do something different to find economic equality or parity," the Ansted mayor is quoted as saying. “We embrace the concept that we have the infrastructure to enable Internet home-based business enterprise.”
While this is a potentially positive development for Ansted, it has something that many small Appalachian communities do not: not one but two high-speed internet providers. With many Appalachian residents reliant on dial-up, or without internet access at all, it is nearly impossible to compete in the technology-based economy. It's encouraging, then, that the Federal Communications Commission recently voted to shift $4.3 billion from a fund to provide phone service to rural areas into a fund to provide broadband. Hopefully this will position more of Appalachia to spearhead programs like the one in Ansted.
A community group in Ansted, partnering with university researchers, has set out to prove that northern Fayette County could be a viable Internet-based business center. They are conducting a study that may eventually help attract “distance earners” — workers who earn their income from home using an Internet connection — and the businesses that employ them to the area.
They are seeking local volunteers to participate in an assessment to gather more information about the skills and competency of the local workforce. The assessment requires two hours and will be held at Midland Trail High School at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
“At first glance, northern Fayette County looks to be a rural community, but unlike traditional rural communities, it has high accessibility to Route 19 and Route 60, which improves business flow and connectivity,” said Jon Kincaid, a graduate student in public administration at West Virginia University who is helping coordinate the assessment.
The group is defining northern Fayette County as the territory from Chimney Corner all the way to Rainelle and north to Nicholas County.
“Being close to Summersville and Beckley, and an hour from Charleston, it’s very easy to get to,” said Kincaid. “So even though it feigns this image of a rural small town, it’s really connected. Northern Fayette County looks like one thing, but it can actually become something else very easily.”
It’s also highly accessible in another way. There are now two providers offering high-speed Internet in the area.
“I began to put the pieces together and see that we have an opportunity for economic revitalization in northern Fayette County,” said Ansted mayor Pete Hobbs.
“It occurred to me that northern Fayette County is geographically and economically separate from the rest of the county. It became pretty apparent to me that we were going to have to do something different to find economic equality or parity.
“We embrace the concept that we have the infrastructure to enable Internet home-based business enterprise.”
Hobbs himself worked the last 11 years of his career at New Jersey-based AT&T from his home in Ansted. Distance earning often means lower overhead expenses for businesses, since work doesn’t take place in a traditional storefront or office setting.
Students earning their master’s in public administration at West Virginia University — led by Dr. Maja Holmes — have been closely involved in the study, which is a Campus-Community LINK project funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and coordinated in partnership with the West Virginia Community Development Hub. The program matches college faculty with community leaders to work together on projects that can benefit both.
“It’s a two-way sharing of resources where the students at the colleges get to touch and feel and give something back to the communities where they’re going to work someday, and the communities extract some expertise and help that they otherwise might not have,” said Hobbs.
The first phase of the study involved a survey generated by the students, which gauged the community’s interest, understanding and comfort level with distance earning.
The results looked positive, said Kincaid. The survey found that seven people in Ansted already worked at home for a major corporation, earning high salaries without having to commute.
“Then we asked, ‘What would be the impact to northern Fayette County if we could enable as many as 10 jobs in each community where salaries would be in the $100,000-a-year range?” said Hobbs. “How would that change the economic dynamics of West Virginia? You’re basically injecting about $1 million worth of income into every small town. It could change the picture significantly, and it was with that basic concept that we started.”
The group decided to move forward with the study’s second phase — the current employability assessment.
The SkillsUSA assessment will gauge 20 different competencies, as well as 40 areas of employability and technical skills, to get a bird’s eye view of the local workforce’s strengths.
An outreach team of students from WVU came to Ansted in October and spoke with businesses, civic organizations, churches, businesses and schools about distance earning and what it could mean for the area. Kincaid said the community’s reaction was extremely positive.
One population being targeted by the study is the recently-retired who are interested in generating another stream of income or remaining active and involved in the workforce. Kincaid said that despite stereotypes, many seniors are comfortable using the Internet in their daily lives.
“It’s definitely new for them, but I don’t get the sense that it’s troubling or scary for them at all,” he said.
Once the assessment is complete, the students will analyze the results and make recommendations so that the community can put together a business plan worthy of presentation to a major corporation.
There are still a few funding hurdles to overcome before the community business plan can take shape. Hobbs said that so far the Fayette County Commission and New River Gorge Regional Development Authority have been supportive of the effort, as well as the Claude Benedum Foundation.
Kincaid, who lives in Raleigh County with his family, said he is pleased to be able to be involved in bringing potential economic drivers to Fayette County.
“When I was growing up, there wasn’t an awful lot of jobs or new growth,” he said. “They need people to take notice that it could be a really good place to develop business.”
Thursday is the last testing session in this round, but Hobbs said that depending on turnout, another session may be scheduled in the future. Coordinators are asking that participants bring a photo ID and a pencil. Questions about the program and Thursday’s assessment can be directed toward DistanceEarning@mail.wvu.edu.